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Why & When Does Reincarnation Occur?

Why & When Does Reincarnation Occur?


Every descent of the soul into this world has a specific Divine purpose. This is the case whether it is the soul’s first descent or a subsequent reincarnation. There are many aspects of gilgul haneshamot—reincarnation of the soul—that are complex and intricate beyond the scope of this response. However, to understand the general purpose for reincarnation, we can look to the three reasons outlined by Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz, as provided by the Kabbalists, in his classic work Shnei Luchot HaBrit (Shaloh).1

1. There are some sins for which the cleansing in the spiritual realm alone does not suffice. Thus souls who have sinned and have not properly repented whilst alive, are sometimes forced to undergo a second round of life in this world as rehabilitation for sins previously committed. For the most part, rehabilitation occurs when the soul is faced with the same challenge to which it succumbed in its previous life, and overcomes it.

(This is also the reason why one should endeavor to do teshuvah (repentance) even if he knows that he has not done anything overtly wicked. After all, he may still have leftovers from a previous lifetime that need fixing. In fact, many have the custom to say, “I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me . . . in this incarnation or in another incarnation,” before their bedtime prayers every night.)

2. Reincarnation provides an opportunity for souls to perform those commandments that they were unable to do in a previous incarnation. Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Arizal) explains that the soul is comprised of 613 channels, which parallel the 248 limbs and 365 blood vessels of the human body.

These 613 channels attain eternal elevation when the soul fulfills all 613 commandments during its earthly descent. Usually a soul does not manage to fulfill all the commandments in one go, and must be repeatedly reincarnated until it has fulfilled them all.2

3. There are some souls who do not descend for their own growth or perfection. Rather, the only reason they return to this earth is to benefit others. This can be to help out an individual or the entire generation, spiritually or materially.

Now that we know why souls generally reincarnate, it should be noted that in theory a soul can reincarnate as many times as needed until it fulfills its mission. Yet this can occur only if it rectifies at least a minute portion of its past while reincarnated. However, a soul that has reincarnated three times without having rectified anything at all is not reincarnated again.3

This would imply that a soul that has reincarnated three times without rectifying its past has no other recourse for further rehabilitation and is forever doomed.4

However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that only reincarnations into human beings is limited to “three strikes and you are out.” These souls can still continue to be reincarnated, first as kosher animals, and then, in decreasing order, as non-kosher animals, plants, and even eventually as inanimate objects, as long as the need exists.5

Therefore, even those souls who have transgressed sins so great that it is said that even languishing in Gehenna does not help rehabilitate them, have a way to be rehabilitated through reincarnation, and ultimately are reunited with their source.6


Torah Shebichtav, Parshat Ki Teitzei.


See Sefer HaGilgulim, ch. 4; Shaar HaGilgulim, Hakdamah 11:16. This excludes commandments that are incumbent only upon a specific individual such as a king, since he discharges the obligation of all of Israel; see Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 29, and the footnotes of the Lubavitcher Rebbe printed in Lessons in Tanya ibid.


See Kitvei HaArizal, Shaar HaPesukim, Parshat Yitro. This is reflected in the verse (Exodus 34:7), “. . . He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation . . .,” meaning that G‑d leads them through up to four incarnations (the original one plus three reincarnations).
Additionally, it is inferred from the fact that the verse (ibid.) states, “. . .preserving lovingkindness for thousands . . .”, that in general, a soul which has rectified part of its past, only reincarnates up to two thousand times. See Shaar HaPesukim loc. cit.


See Shaar HaPesukim loc. cit.


There is, however, an important distinction between souls that reincarnate into human bodies and those that reincarnate into other creatures. When a human soul incarnates into an animal, it does so merely as an observer. That is to say that this creature is like any other creature of its kind, except that a reincarnated soul is trapped inside. The excruciating pain and sorrow the soul experiences while trapped inside the animal, forced to live and observe the life of this creature while powerless to control its behavior, serves to rehabilitate it.
Additionally, while this soul cannot really rehabilitate itself as it has no control over the action of the creature, it can sometimes be rehabilitated through the actions of others, for example, by someone reciting a blessing over it, if it is kosher.


Igrot Kodesh, vol. 1, p. 153.
Often they need the help of other souls in order to rehabilitate themselves. This is the reason why the Baal Shem Tov and the Arizal, respectively, would sometimes travel great distances in order to recite a blessing at a certain location or over a specific dish.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Discussion (40)
August 29, 2015
“three strikes and you are out.”
I have read many places that you are reincarnated as many times as it takes. I also think that at some point if your spirit/soul does not advance that it goes into the melting pot to be refined and reused to make new souls. Sort of like broken pieces of metal
remelted to be made into items.
Doug Cutler
June 30, 2015
Thank g-dness that we all aren't expected to fulfill the mitzvoth of kings (and queens).
The Nepalese (buddhists??) have a "circle of life" that is extremely aligned with the Judeo-Christian concept of reincarnation.
louise leon
June 29, 2015
Re: Kate
Please read footnote #2 which discusses your question about the unique Mitzvot incumbent upon the kings.
Yehuda Shurpin for
June 28, 2015
Mitzvot unfulfilled
"Usually a soul does not manage to fulfill all the commandments in one go, and must be repeatedly reincarnated until it has fulfilled them all."
But some commands, for instance, are only for Jewish kings — so, to fulfill every mitzvah, must every Jewish soul become a Jewish king? How can millions and millions of souls each be a Jewish king ... since there are no more Jewish kings, and there certainly will not be several millions of Jewish kings for the souls to be!
Kate Gladstone
Albany, NY, USA
December 29, 2014
Requirement to reincarnate
I have gone through many sites and also ask the questions about the requirement to reincarnate. But till date I have not recevied any satisfactory answer. The question I have is, What needs to be done/what is required ro reincarnate so that I will be able to complete my love story? As in this life its not possible.
November 16, 2014
Hi Doreet
Just read your, what an interesting and probably stressful life you've led. I admire your strength. I truly believe that awful things can happen to good people. I guess that often times these "good" people are not to blame for the horrible circumstances that life/fate creates. Strength and courage.
louise leon
November 15, 2014
3 strikes
I would like to know how the Rebbe determined that there are only 3 reincarnations. I am of the opinion that I have been here multiple times but am here this time because of my most recent past life in which my sins were pride and arrogance as I was an army officer in ww1 in the German Army. I was Jewish. I have published a book about past lives and such, entitled "The Mirror."
michael swanger
October 22, 2014
Are Jews the only ones who believe in Reincarnation?
No; Hinduism believes in reincarnation; Buddists believe in it.My dad was born in old China,and he said the Chinese have "ancestral worship,"and they believe in it.My dad believed it. I said,if I had the money,before I die,I'll go to an honest,good hypnotist,(with a trusted friend) and try to be "regressed" to see,IF I have any past lives.Because,I have too many strange,unexplained things that might be attributed to it.Things I knew,and a whole town I recognized,knew I had lived there,knew people there,but it's NOT in my experience,ever ! And I can't explain these things! If no past lives,I accept that. But,I have to know where the strange memories from! / I made a LOT of mistakes in life,and things I had no choice about, so I'd like to know if these were "terrible sins."I knew someone committed murder, and never told,I was threatened with death if I did, as a kid. I never told.
Eugene OR
August 29, 2014
From these readings it follows that reincarnation is triggered not by a human will but by a soul's need to return to its original place cleansed. Now let's assume I'm right. What kind of soul would need a reincarnation? A very troubled one, or perhaps not so troubled but for a long time obsessed with sins, or with a particular sin. I imagine this soul looking for God in all kinds of churches available. I've read there is hope for such a soul in despair. G-d is merciful and can send an angel to show to this soul His mercifulness.
August 29, 2014
@Menachem in London: Reincarnation has always existed in Judaism since Abraham.
Reincarnation is not now a Xtian concept, because Constantine and his Nicene Councils threw it out and substituted it with an idolatrous human sacrifice for sin. Reincarnation is a foundational doctrine in Judaism from the beginning of Judaism with Abraham. It is found in the Torah. As for the Hindus, according to Judaism's Oral Torah, reincarnation is part of the teachings brought TO the Hindus by none other than Abraham's sons, when Abraham sent them to the "East". His sons by his second wife Keturah, who was previously named Hagar, whom he married after Sarah died. The Hindus have since corrupted much of their religion, but they have kept the concept of reincarnation at least. There are many books on Judaism and Reincarnation you can read by Orthodox Rabbis, who bring the sources for it FROM Torah and Judaism from the very beginning. See the sources given there, long before R. Luria, all the way back to Abraham. It can be shocking, but Judaism is an Eastern religion, not Western.
Virginia Beach
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